Losing a pet can be a child’s first experience with death. Here’s how to help them cope
By Mikkel Becker
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Almost a year ago, we lost our 12-year-old black pug, Willy. We knew he was on his last legs, but his death was sudden and unexpected. My husband and I were out of the country, but my 10-year-old daughter, Reagan, and my mother, Teresa, were there when Willy collapsed and passed away.
Because Willy was getting on in years and suffered from diminishing health, we’d had the opportunity to talk about how much we loved Willy, how hard his passing would be, how we’d miss him and what we would do when he’d passed (including the notion of one day getting another dog). Preparation beforehand didn’t make the passing easy, but it at least gave Reagan a foundation for support in the wake of the sudden loss. Most importantly, Reagan was able to talk with the family about what had occurred.
The loss of a beloved dog, cat or other pet is traumatic for people of any age, but for children, experiencing the death of a pet can be especially painful. Not only are they losing a close companion or best friend, it’s likely the first time they are encountering loss and the finality of death.
For the child, recovery after a loss can be difficult to manage; the child may remember little to no time without the pet having been there. Life without their beloved critter is likely to look and feel vastly different than what they’ve experienced before.
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to help a child cope with and grieve the loss of a pet. But certain approaches better build the ability to cope and to fully grieve, important steps for coming to terms with -- and, when the time is right, moving forward from -- the loss of one we love. As an animal trainer and mom, I want to share three ways I’ve found to help a child to better deal with the loss of a pet.
Even before losing Willy and, before him, our other pug, Bruce, we had discussed the potential passing of a pet or person through thought-provoking books and movies that dealt with the notion of death. This offered us opportunities to talk about death, saying goodbye and moving forward when a loved one dies. For Reagan, this foundation helped her to better deal with loss when it happened.
Reflecting on the favorite things Willy had done recently also helped Reagan through her grief. It was important for her to hear that Willy felt little pain and that up until the final moment, he was at his happiest: visiting his favorite place on earth, Almost Heaven Ranch, with some of his favorite people, including her. Willy knew he was loved and felt that love up until the very end. To Reagan, that was a comforting fact in her loss.
Finally, a lasting legacy of the pet’s love is something the child can go to for comfort. For Reagan, writing notes to and drawing pictures of her dogs after their passing (Bruce died in 2015, and my parents recently lost their beloved Quixote) were ties to the lasting love she felt for her late pets.
She also appreciated having photos and a specific painting of each pug that serve as reminders of them. We gave her a special paw print charm that says, “Always with you.” This was important for her and offered her a feeling of comfort after Willy’s passing.
When asked what helped her cope the most, Reagan says, “I’m still not over it.” I completely agree. I don’t think anyone ever “gets over” the loss of their pet. But what’s important is learning to deal with the new normal while remembering the love.
Do dogs need
Q: Is it OK to use Dawn dishwashing detergent to bathe my dog? What about baby shampoo? I want to use something mild.
A: We turned to a couple of coat and skin experts to find the answer. Amelia White is a veterinary dermatologist at Alabama’s Auburn University, and Julie Ellingson is a professional dog groomer in Sacramento, California.
Dawn has a reputation for being effective because we often hear about it being used to remove crude oil from water birds after oil spills. But there’s a big difference between crude oil and the oil and dirt on your dog’s skin. Dawn isn’t made for use on dogs, and it’s too harsh for their skin -- which is thinner than our own, Ellingson says. Besides being harsh, it can cause other problems, she adds.
“I have seen more than a few ulcerated eyes in dogs from people using Dawn to strip out greasy ears. The dog shakes and the soap gets in the eyes and burns them. It’s not worth the risk.”
Baby shampoo, while gentle for babies, isn’t made for a dog’s skin, either. “The pH, or acidity, of baby skin is different than dogs’,” Dr. White says. “If you bathe dogs with human-grade shampoos, that can make them have increased scaling, or what people call dandruff.”
That’s because baby shampoo changes the pH in canine skin and makes their skin cells slough off faster than they’re supposed to, which looks like dandruff. Then you think, “Oh, no, they’re dirty,” and you bathe them more frequently, exacerbating the problem.
What should you use? There are many good, mild and effective shampoos made specifically for dogs. “Choose a dog shampoo, something that is gentle and cleansing, preferably something that is oatmeal-based,” Dr. White says. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Tortoise runs away --
to previous home
-- A week after Sweety disappeared, the Russian tortoise turned up -- 5 miles away at the family’s previous home. The kicker? They hadn’t lived there in 10 years. Social media aided the reunion. Sweety was picked up by a woman who was driving down the street and spotted the on-the-lam tortoise. She posted a photo of Sweety, and owner Sara Coggeshall saw it. Russian tortoises have a reputation as escape artists, so a wire-reinforced fence may be in order to keep Sweety at home.
-- People in domestic abuse situations are often unwilling to leave home without their pets, who are at risk themselves from abusers, but most domestic violence shelters don’t permit pets. A New York City-based program called PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) is working to provide them with the option of bringing pets to shelters. PALS provides access to 172 apartments in five different buildings where families -- pets, too -- can stay together. Besides dogs and cats, PALS has helped to shelter fish, birds, guinea pigs, turtles, hamsters, a rabbit and a bearded dragon. More information is available at urinyc.org/uripals.
-- Rabbits need a large, safe place to play; bunny companionship as well as appropriate human interaction (loud children and rough handling can scare them); a grass- or hay-based diet (nix the carrots; they’re too sweet); good grooming; and regular veterinary care, including vaccinations. All too often, though, they don’t get those things, according to a study of more than 6,000 rabbits in the United Kingdom. Veterinarians treating them see overgrown nails and teeth, skin and digestive problems, and dirty rear ends. They can die from maggots feeding on them and appetite loss caused by poor dental health or stomach ulcers. To learn about good rabbit care, visit the website of the House Rabbit Society at rabbit.org. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton, and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.